Heart failure: Can loss of smell predict risk?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Might loss of smell indicate heart problems? Image credit: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images.
  • About 64 million people globally have heart failure.
  • Researchers from Michigan State University say losing the sense of smell may help predict a person’s risk of developing heart failure.
  • Scientists did not find a link between loss of smell and heart disease or stroke risk.

Specialists estimate that about 64 million people globally have heart failure — a medical condition where the heart is unable to pump enough blood throughout the entire body.

Heart failure can be caused by other diseases that weaken the heart muscle, such as coronary heart disease, as well as unhealthy lifestyle factors, such as smoking and heavy alcohol use.

Now researchers from Michigan State University say losing the sense of smell may help predict a person’s risk of developing heart failure.

The study was recently published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

People begin to lose their sense of smell as they age and previous research shows olfactory dysfunction begins to increase once we hit age 60.

“Smell loss or impairment affects about a quarter of older adults,” Honglei Chen, PhD, MSU Research Foundation Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, and lead author of this study, told Medical News Today.

“The public awareness is low though — only about 30% of those with smell loss know they have it,” he noted.

“We learned in the past two decades that smell loss is one of the most important early markers of dementia and Parkinson’s disease,” Chen continued. “Interestingly, emerging data, including ours, suggests that smell loss may have more profound implications on the health of older adults, including [the] risk of death, pneumonia, functional decline, and frailty.”

Smell loss may also be related to cardiovascular health, added Keran Chamberlin, a doctoral researcher in epidemiology at Michigan State University, and first author of this study.

“For example, preliminary data found that subclinical cardiovascular changes may affect the sense of smell of older adults,” Chamberlin explained to MNT.

“On the other hand, we may speculate that smell loss may adversely affect one’s nutritional intake, mood, and daily activities, which may jeopardize cardiovascular health over time. This may be especially relevant to heart failure.”

– Keran Chamberlin

“As heart failure is an advanced multi-faceted syndrome, its progression may be exacerbated by the elevated vulnerability,” she added. “Therefore, smell loss may be related to cardiovascular Health as a marker, contributor, or both.”

Should readers worry about potential cardiovascular concerns if they find their sense of smell is changing? Chen said that at this stage, the general public should understand that the findings are preliminary.

“We need to further evaluate the potential role of smell function as a marker for heart failure, as well as for stroke and coronary heart diseases,” he continued.

“Hopefully, this study will lead to a series of investigations on smell and cardiovascular health and provide the public [with] informed strategies to maintain cardiovascular health,” said Chen.

Our next step is to further investigate this topic in more diverse populations,” Chamberlin added. “If the findings are confirmed, by us and by others, we should investigate the underlying mechanisms that link smell loss to cardiovascular health.”

MNT also spoke with Richard Wright, MD, a board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA about this study. Wright was also not involved in the research.

He told us he found the prognostic potential of impaired sense of smell intriguing, provocative, and important.

“Any simple criterion to predict the eventual development of heart failure would be clinically welcome,” Wright said.

“However, like many good studies, the current analysis raises more questions than it answers. As a failing sense of smell is strongly associated with aging, as is the syndrome of congestive heart failure, the most straightforward interpretation of these results is that some individuals age at a more rapid rate than others. Such people might lose their sense of smell and cardiac function at a more rapid rate than others, and hence the observed correlation of these two clinical conditions may simply be due to differential rates of aging — analogous to the various ages at which gray hair appears.”

– Richard Wright, MD

“This observed correlation needs further investigation using clinical data — rather than billing and encounter information — correlating the type of heart failure, chronic medications used, and more expansive exploration of co-morbidities and social determinants of health to truly understand whether heart failure ‘causes,’ or is just correlated with olfactory dysfunction,” he added.

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